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The 2010 Glen Workshop In Santa Fe, NM

The House is Black
Movie Poster for Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet
Directed by Forough Farrokhzad
Produced by Ebrahim Golestan
Written by Forough Farrokhzad
Music by N/A
Cinematography by Soleiman Minasian
Editing by Forough Farrokhzad
Release Date 1963
Running Time 20 min.
Language Persian
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The House is Black
(Khaneh siah ast)

"There are moments when the social world seems more evident in an object or a gesture than in the whole concatenation of our beliefs and institutions.” In this quote, anthropologist David MacDougall encapsulates the ambition of observational cinema with perfect precision. “Through our senses we measure the qualities of our surroundings—the tempo of life, the dominant patterns of color [and light], texture, movement, and behavior—and these coalesce to make the world familiar or strange." In her short documentary-essay-avant-garde film that inspired the Iranian New Wave movement, Forough Farrokhzad takes us on a profound and powerful observational journey through the familiar and the strange.  

The House is Black is a look at life in an Iranian leper colony in the early 1960s. The opening rhythm and images provide time to consider what life as a leper confined to a leper colony must be like. The passing centuries do not appear to have brought much change in the treatment of lepers or the way they must live. Softly, we hear the lepers thanking God (Allah) for everything about their present bodies, i.e., ears, hands, feet, eyes, etc., and the extremities many of them no longer possess. Interspersed within are images of daily routines and the activities of children playing.  

The editing mesmerizes—nearly hypnotizes—and creates a visual heart-beat of the subjects. The images themselves can be overwhelming due to the shocking and grotesque nature of leprosy and its effects on the human body. However, Farrokhzad’s narration of the Old Testament, the Koran, and her own poetry is so delicately spoken that it softens the shock and atrocity of the imagery allowing the viewer to focus on the people and not the disease, revealing the soul under the skin. Her voice is more like a beautiful melody than an introspective reading of a poem or passages of scripture. 

A male voice is interjected into film, sterilizing it, creating a clinical feel. This transition serves to make the film more powerful as the stylistic dichotomies converge. One style shows the factual side of the colony and leprosy, and conversely, the other form introduces the individual, the human and the spirit. It is the intermingling of the scientific and the soul; the sacred and the secular. 

Many call this a documentary. However, that moniker feels incomplete. This film plays with narrative techniques and pushes the form in new directions. This film goes far beyond a poetic treatment of leprosy; it humanizes those who have been afflicted. It invites us into their world without inundating us with a sense of hopelessness and tragedy. It acts as a sort of call for understanding, compassion, and restoration; to restore the lepers, not to their bodies but to their families and communities, with dignity and care.  

The images, underscored with prayers of thanksgiving, create powerful moments bringing together the familiar and the strange, establishing an incredible testimony to the perseverance of the human spirit and faith. This is the only film Forough Farrokhzad directed before her death at thirty two and it is perhaps one of the most powerful twenty-two minutes on film. 

— T. Fredericks

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